Environmental issues such as air pollution, loss of green spaces, and waste from the process of producing and using natural resources are an important consideration when looking at people’s well-being. In fact, natural environment is one of the measures in the Office for National Statistics's Measures of National Well-being programme.
This short story will examine the impact of air pollution, which is created when natural resources such as coal and oil are used in economic production and household consumption. Air pollution can affect people’s health in a number of ways. Short-term effects include upper respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis; long-term effects include lung and heart diseases. Air pollution can also aggravate existing conditions such as asthma and emphysema.
Air pollution has direct and indirect costs on the economy. Prescription charges and healthcare services are direct costs, whereas lower productivity resulting from absenteeism is an indirect cost. Moreover, reduction in life expectancy resulting from air pollution is a loss in human capital. It is estimated that air pollution reduces life expectancy in the UK by an average of six months with an estimated equivalent health cost of up to £19 billion a year. It also has a detrimental effect on the UK’s ecosystem and vegetation.
Some of the most harmful pollutants are particulate matter (PM), oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, ground level ozone and ammonia. Road transport, large fuel-burning plants such as power stations, and agriculture are key sources for one or more of these pollutants.
PM and ozone are two pollutants thought to have the greatest impact on public health through long-term exposure. PM less than 10 microns in diameter (about one seventh the thickness of human hair) are known as PM10. PM less than 2.5 microns in diameter are known as PM2.5, and are so small they can only be detected with an electron microscope. Both particles can get into the lungs and potentially cause serious health problems.
Total PM10 Emissions in the UK, 1990-2010
Total PM2.5 Emissions in the UK, 1990-2010
Emissions of PM10 and 2.5 in the UK have been generally falling since the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2010 the emissions from PM10 fell by 54 per cent from 0.31 million tonnes to 0.14 million tonnes. Over the same period, emissions from PM2.5 fell by 49 per cent from 185 thousand tonnes to 95 thousand tonnes. The steady decline in PM pollutants was attributable to a move away from coal to gas in both electricity generation and domestic and commercial combustion, and the introduction of emission standards for road vehicles.
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